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Lewis Downing served as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1867 to 1872.
Downing was born in eastern Tennessee in 1823. Young Downing and his family came west with the party led by Jesse Bushyhead and the Reverends John B. and Evan Jones in 1839 and settled near the old Baptist Mission in what is today, Adair County, Oklahoma. He attended school at the Valley Town Mission and later at the Baptist Mission. Early in life, he became a convert of the Mission and subsequently was ordained to the Baptist ministry. Reports of his spiritual activities reach back to 1842 when he was but nineteen years of age. On August 3, 1844, he was unanimously chosen pastor of the Flint Baptist Church.
The young minister was a strong contributor in Cherokee Nation politics and as such was elected senator from Goingsnake District on August 4, 1845. He later removed to a farm on what is today the southeast corner of Mayes County, Oklahoma, where he was elected to the senate on August 4, 1851, and again on August 1, 1859. He was sent as a delegate from the tribe to Washington, D.C. in 1851.
Then came the American Civil War with its potential menace of tribal dissension among the Cherokees and the rather halting assent of Chief Ross to an alliance witfh the Confederacy forming the majority of the Indian cavalry. Lewis Downing was named chaplain of companies F and S of the Regiment of Cherokee Mounted Rifles for the Confederate service which was formed by Chief John Ross on October 4, 1861, of which Col. John Drew was the commanding officer. The members of this regiment were mostly full bloods, were not slave owners and, at heart, were abolitionists. This regiment fought in the Confederate service at Pea Ridge, Arkansas, on March 7–8, 1862, but with the advance of the Union forces into the Territory in July 1862, and the departure of Chief Ross for Philadelphia, its members began to waver in their allegiance to the South. With few exceptions, among them being Col. John Drew, the members of this regiment began to abandon the Confederate service and, on July 11, 1862, at Flat Rock Creek, joined the Third Indian Home Guards for service in the Union Army. This contingent was composed of three regiments consisting of 1,480 men, of which Lewis Downing was named Lieut. Colonel and the Rev. John B. Jones was designated its chaplain, in the brigade of Col. William A. Phillips. The cleavage so created resulted in the formation of dual governments in the Cherokee Nation, each striving to control its political affairs. The Union Cherokee government, which recognized John Ross as chief, held its meetings at Cowskin Prairie where, in July 1862, allegiance to the Confederacy was renounced and on February 21, 1863, laws of emancipation were enacted and future slavery abolished. Chief Ross being absent in the East, the political affairs of the Union Cherokees were managed by a coterie of leaders, of whom Lewis Downing was the presiding spirit, ultimately serving as the third (in succession) acting principal chief of the Union Cherokee in John Ross' absence in Washington City. This duplication in Cherokee tribal governments obtained from July 1862, until the conclusion of the war.
Lewis Downing, who was president of the Union tribal council, went to Washington in 1863 to enlist the attention of the government in the Cherokee situation. After the war a preliminary intertribal peace conference with the United States commissioners was held at Fort Smith on September 8, 1865. It was at this meeting that Lewis Downing protested against the refusal of the commissioners to accord recognition to John Ross as the chief of the Cherokees. Ross returned to Tahlequah for a brief period in the fall of 1865 but returned to Washington the next year to urge his protest against the approval of section nine of the treaty of June 19, 1866, wherein the Cherokees were required to adopt their former slaves into tribal membership. The provisions of this disputed section were approved by the Reverend John B. Jones who accompanied the old chief as a delegate and who signed the treaty as such.
John Ross died at Washington on August 1, 1866, and, as Assistant Principal Chief, Lewis Downing automatically became Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation serving as such until October 19, 1866, when William P. Ross was chosen by the council to fill the vacancy. Much bitterness lingered between the contending elements among the Cherokees, following the cessation of hostilities. Among the Ross faction of the Union Cherokees were many who insisted upon the exclusion of the Confederate Cherokees from all participation in tribal affairs. There were sentiments that the penalties for their Southern activities had not been entirely exhausted. Lewis Downing was opposed to any discriminating policies and at this initial point, his sentiments of tribal unity were crystallized by the formation of what was to become known as the Downing Party, in the political life of the Cherokee Nation. Reverend John B. Jones threw his power and influence among the full bloods, behind the Downing movement which was to rehabilitate the Southern Cherokees and align them with the erstwhile Union Cherokees, without favor or discrimination. The success of the movement was reflected in the tribal election held on August 5, 1867, when Lewis Downing was elected Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, having behind him the support of both factions. The Downing party thereafter controlled the political affairs of the Cherokee Nation until Statehood save for the regime of Chief Dennis W. Bushyhead of from 1879 to 1887.
Lewis Downing signed the Treaty of April 27, 1869, at Washington and also represented the Cherokees at Washington as a delegate in 1869 and in 1870. The re-election of the chief on August 7, 1871, was an evidence of the satisfaction of his people with his regime. He died in office at Tahlequah, on November 9, 1872, and is buried in the old Ned Adair cemetery in what is today Mayes County, Oklahoma.
|- style="text-align: center;"
|width="30%" align="center" rowspan="1"|Preceded by
William P.Ross |width="40%" style="text-align: center;" rowspan="1"|Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation
1867-1872 |width="30%" align="center" rowspan="1"| Succeeded by
William P.Ross |- |}